Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

Once a Muslim scholar from the UK visited India to give a lecture on: ‘Islam and the West.’ During the question hour, an Indian Muslim asked: ‘You have given us so much information about Islam and the West, now, would you please tell us what the Muslims should do, when in the minority, in countries such as India?’ The scholar remained silent for a while and then replied: “It is, indeed, a difficult question. In Islam we find a model for a position of strength. But, there is no model in Islam for the position of modesty.” This is not just a stray remark. In fact, it illustrates the way of thinking prevalent almost all over the Muslim world today. It clearly shows the mindset of today’s Muslims. Consciously or unconsciously, they look to their glorious history in order to understand their status and role in the world. Their mentality is such that when they find a prominent model of strength, they naturally conclude that what Islam stands for is worldwide Muslim political dominance. It is this attitude which prevents them from penetrating the veil of their glorious history to seek guidance directly from the Quran and Sunnah. Had they done so, they would certainly, have succeeded in finding role models for all human positions including that of modesty. They would further have realized that it is not the political but the ideological spread of Islam through peaceful dawah work that the Muslim Ummah has to struggle for everywhere and under all circumstances.

Contrary to the prevalent misconception that Islam failed to provide its followers with any model of a low-key position, an unbiased study of the Prophet’s biography will reveal that up till the conquest of Makkah in the 8th A.H., 20 of the 23 years of his life as a Prophet, were spent in exactly what is nowadays termed a state of modesty. When, chronologically, more than three-quarters of the Prophetic mission portrays a picture of humility, what is it that makes one remark that there is no Islamic model for Muslim minorities in India or elsewhere? The fact is that such people are so overwhelmed by the political glory built up during the later period of Muslim history, that their eyes are totally blinded to the glory of the modesty in the life of the Prophet.

This shift in later history of drawing inspiration from political glory instead of from the Quran and Sunnah, has, unfortunately, blurred the general vision of present-day Muslims to such an extent, that the original Islam has turned for them into an alien religion. They proudly claim that Islam is a complete code of life and that their Prophet had set a perfect role model for all times to come, yet due to their own misdirected approach, they are unable to find any model for the position of modesty which is comparatively much more important than the model for a position of strength, as it is popularly called.

This state of affairs is entirely in accordance with the prophetic prediction: “Islam began as a stranger. And, finally, it will again become a stranger. Let, then, the strangers be blessed” (Muslim). It would be no exaggeration to say that the original version of Islam has literally become totally unfamiliar to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Islam, has thus, to be rediscovered. And to rediscover Islam, we have first of all to discover what the factors are that have made Islam a stranger in the world today. In the following pages, the reader will find a thorough analysis of the historical and political reasons for the tragic phenomenon of the alienation of Islam as predicted in the Hadith.

Why Islam Alone

We seldom hear the adherents of other religions complaining about their faiths being misunderstood. For instance Hindus, Buddhists and Christians do not hold that their respective religions are badly understood. One reason is that they do not mix their religions with communal politics, and do not generally try to advance their own worldly interests in the name of their religions — as present-day Muslims are doing on a large scale.

One who studies Islam, directly from its sacred scriptures, is astonished to find that the original Islam is totally different from what it is now generally held to be. Other religions are known to people as they are; hence the need to rediscover them does not arise. The problem of misapprehension applies therefore exclusively to Islam. There is a great need to study Islam from its original scriptures in order to re-discover it in its original form. In modern times many books have been published with the aim of removing misunderstandings about Islam. One title is as follows:

‘Islam, the Most Misunderstood Religion’.

But titles such as these are not in accordance with the actual state of affairs. These books start with the premise that non-Muslims have mistakenly come to regard Islam as a religion of intolerance and violence and then they attempt to remove these misapprehensions. But the actual question to be addressed is why there should ever have been such misunderstanding. It has to be conceded that it is based not on some allegation but rather on the fact that the Muslims of today, in almost every country, repeatedly display violence and intolerance towards others. They have adopted this course of action in the name of Islamic movements or Islamic Jihad. Were Muslims to do so in the name of their own communal interest and people attributed that to Islam, this would amount to misunderstanding based on an allegation. But when Muslims themselves attributed their activities to Islam, it becomes a case of proper understanding and not that of misunderstanding.

Furthermore, the educated class of modern times is obsessed with the concept of anthropology, which treats religion as a social phenomenon instead of as a vehicle for revealed truth. Therefore, according to their way of thinking, they naturally come to regard the activities of Muslims to be Islam itself. And their thinking is further confirmed when they find that Muslims engage themselves in these activities in the very name of Islam.

Given this state of affairs, the real task to be performed is to differentiate between Islam as such and Muslims. It should be made clear that Islam and Muslims are not necessarily one and the same thing, so that one must differentiate between Islam and Muslims. Islam is an ideology. One who adopts this ideology in full is a Muslim; otherwise he is not a Muslim. It is essential that Muslims be judged in the light of Islamic ideals: Islam should not be judged in the light of what Muslims do in the name of Islam.

Prophetic Perspective

In a hadith the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, observed: My generation is the best one, then the second generation and then the third generation. (Sahih Muslim, 8/550)

This means that Islamic virtue was at its peak in the first generation, and that there was a decline in righteousness through the second and the third generations. This stage is known in the history of Islam as the period of the Prophet's companions and the period of Prophet's companions' companions.

There is nothing mysterious about it. Degeneration, a law of nature which applies to every group, set in after the first generation itself. By the third generation, the roots of Islam had weakened and by the fourth generation the characteristics of the first generation had been considerably diluted. This process went on until after a few centuries that period commenced when, we do find individuals in considerable number who had imbibed the true spirit of Islam, but society on the whole was found drastically lacking in the features of the early Islam,

This is what is meant by Islam becoming" a stranger," as in the above-quoted prediction of the Prophet. In latter times this difference has become so marked that the Islam of the early days has come to appear strange to the Muslims of today. Some basic reasons for this transformation are outlined below:

Separation of Spirit and Form

The first reason for this difference lies in the separation of the spirit from the form. In later generations the form remains intact but the spirit is lost, rather like a fruit with its skin intact but altogether devoid of pulp.

For instance, in the first phase iman (faith) meant· realization of God, while in later times iman becomes synonymous with the recitation of the creed of Islam (kalimah). In the early phase ibadah (worship) meant khushu, (spiritual devotion) but in later times it becomes synonymous with a set of rituals. In earlier times Akhlaq (good moral character) meant unconditional good character, but in later times it becomes synonymous with the kind of character, whose goodness or badness depends upon the good or bad conduct of others.

If, in the early period of Islam, a position of trust was identified with responsibility, in the later period it becomes associated with honour and prestige. In the early phase, the ideology of Islam was highlighted, while in the later phase the history of Islam replaced the ideology. In the first phase, Islam was an issue of duty; in the second phase, it became an issue of pride. In the first phase, the Quran was a book of tadabbur, (deep contemplation), whereas in the second phase, it became simply a book for recitation. In the first phase, following in the footsteps of the Prophet was given the utmost importance but in later times, the Prophet was glorified as a national hero, so that Muslims might assert their own superiority over other nations. While the thinking of the first generation was that they could earn paradise only on the basis of their personal deeds, the people of the later period came to hold that mere association with the Ummah (community) was enough to secure them paradise. People of the first generation turned to the original texts as preserved in the Quran and Sunnah to seek guidance in every matter; while people of the later generation referred to the commentaries and interpretations produced afterwards. In the first phase self-reckoning and criticism were appreciated, but in later times criticism became a taboo as Muslims became reluctant to accept their own faults, considering themselves above any shortcoming.

Due to these differences, the religion of the first phase of Islam became an unknown religion for the people of the later phase. Indeed, when they were called to the religion of the first phase, they found it so unfamiliar to their thinking and practices that they became dire opponents of such a call. However, there is no doubt that one who loses his popularity among the people as a result of calling them to the original Islam will have a great reward reserved for him by God in the Hereafter.

Communalization of the Religion

Another reason for public alienation from the real Islam is that the faithfulls fall from the high pedestal of principled religion to the level of communal religion. Then, this communal agenda is Islamized, the ideals of Islam being replaced by communal aspirations. This is the result, in modern times; of Muslims being faced with many kinds of communal problems, such as the usurpation of their land, deprivation of political power, cultural invasion, exploitation in terms of economic resources, etc. And there are many other similar communal problems from which present day Muslims are suffering at the hands of their opponents.

All over the world, Muslims have launched movements on these scores. In some places they take the form of protest and demands, while in others they develop into armed conflicts. If such activities have any justification, it is purely communal. Muslims fight for their communal objectives, but they call it Islamic jihad. Their leaders form political parties, they enter into violent conflict with other rulers in order to gain power, but they carry out all these activities in the name of Islam. Power play, pure and simple, is given the name of Islamic politics. The so-called Islamic jihad is the most glaring example of engaging in non-Islamic activities under the banner of Islam. In different parts of the world, wherever Muslims are engaged in fighting for their own communal purposes they inevitably call their activities Islamic jihad. The harm done by such violent jihad has multiplied thousand-fold due to the modern media’s selective coverage of news. Since hot news is more profitable than soft news, examples of Muslim jihad are seized upon by the media as grist to the mill. This has distorted the image of Islam to such an extent that, today, Islam and violence have become synonymous.

A state of affairs has developed in which Muslims have come to believe that the cause of Islam can be served only through jihad activism, that is, armed struggle. With this mindset, they are unable to understand the significance of peaceful struggle. Anyone who talks in terms of peace and tolerance finds his integrity in question. Any attempt at making them understand the importance of peaceful struggle is seen as a conspiracy to keep them from performing jihad as a “religious duty.” It is thus an extremely difficult task to call Muslims to peaceful Islam. Such a mission involves the risk of being discredited among one’s own co-religionists. In consequence, the call, goes unheeded.

The Veil of Interpretation

One reason for original Islam becoming alien is that as time went by self-styled interpretations of the Quran and Sunnat gradually placed a veil over the original content of these texts. A time came when the original Islam was completely obscured from view. The wrong, man-made interpretations took the place of revealed guidance. In later times, people mistakenly took them to be the real Islam.

In the early phase of Islam people derived their religion directly from the Quran and Sunnah, therefore, their association with the original Islam remained intact. But the interpretations and explanations of later days served only to obscure the original teachings. The natural beauty of Islam disappeared. The Quran and Sunnah now turned into relics instead of being instruments of guidance. Thus the religion came to be based on latter-day interpretations and explanations instead of on the original scriptures.

How did this corruption set in in the literature produced by the later generations? The answer is that certain people, having a command over the language, were able to acquire a superficial knowledge of the scriptures but were unable to understand them in depth; for this realization (maarifah) is required. When one finds religion at the level of realization, one is endowed by God with the wisdom (hikmat) to be able to understand the deeper meaning of the words of the scriptures. On the other hand those who are not blessed with this special gift of wisdom, have nothing by which to understand Islam, except their own preconceptions.

They begin to interpret religion according to their own mindset. The result is that, although they refer to the Quran and Sunnah, their interpretations have little bearing on the original texts. Religious degeneration ensues in which they appear to follow Islam but actually stray far from its spirit. They fail to differentiate between God-sent religion and man-made interpretation. At this point, one who calls people to the original Islam becomes an alien among his own people. He fails to gain popularity even among those already in the Muslim fold. However, losing popularity in this world for the sake of God will earn him a greater reward in the life Hereafter. For, when the image of Islam had been distorted, it was he, who was ready to take all the risks involved in the process of reviving its original form.

One great loss created by these additions to the original Islam was the shift in emphasis. Some important teachings of Islam were relegated to the background—for instance, concern for the larger humanity, dawah, patience, etc. Dawah is the greatest mission of the Muslim Ummah, for, although prophethood came to an end with Muhammad (may peace be upon him), the mission of the Prophet has not yet come to an end. The mission continues through the Ummah, as a matter of religious duty. It would be no exaggeration to say that without the performance of this duty, its very credibility of being the Muslim Ummah would become doubtful. Strangely, indeed, dawah found no place in the literature of the centuries after the Prophet. Neither has it been mentioned anywhere in the Muslim agenda of today. The classical commentaries of the Quran (Tafsir) also fail to give any prominence to dawah as a concept. In books of hadith too, we find chapters on all subjects except dawah. The same is true of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in whose texts we do not find a chapter on dawah.

According to the Quran, the exercise of patience (sabr) is a deed which makes man eligible for the highest reward (8:46); the patient man will be rewarded “beyond measure” (39:10). But the interpretation that gained popularity in later times was that the injunction of sabr, patience, had been abrogated and replaced by jihad (in the sense of qital, fighting). Thus, one who studies these books, gathers the impression, that consciously or unconsciously, patience might have been important in the past, but that nowadays it has lost its relevance. Now jihad (in the sense of qital) and not sabr is of the foremost importance.

It follows that whenever a reformer calls Muslims back to their duties concerning dawah and sabr, they become antagonistic to such a call, because they have become conditioned to finding it alien to their thinking.

The Obsession with Historical Glory

As mentioned above, one of the major reasons for the original Islam becoming an alien religion among the Muslims is that for latter day generations the basis for the Islamic ethos became the later history of Islam instead of the Quran and Sunnah. Muslims found their glorious history far more attractive than the Quran and Sunnah. For them they were just sets of words. Their history, on the contrary, gave them an immense sense of pride, as it was full of imperial grandeur and conquests. Although they continued to pay lip service to the Quran by reciting it, they were, in fact, lost in the glories of Islamic history. Gradually they came to associate themselves and Islam with this grand history: instead of the Quran and Sunnah, history became their chief source of inspiration.

This change of the source of inspiration wrought immense harm. When the Quran and Sunnah are one’s intellectual sources it is modesty that is bred in the mind, whereas if one takes history as one’s intellectual source, pride is bound to be generated.

If the Quran and Sunnah are taken to be the true sources of knowledge of God’s will, all mankind, in the words of a hadith, will be regarded by the believers as God’s family; the whole of humanity will become their concern: whereas, when the mind is shaped by history, Muslims see themselves as rulers, and others as subjects. If they derive Islam from the Quran and Sunnah, then all God’s creation—even a blade of grass—will appear to them as God’s signs. Whereas when history is the source of their Islam, the forts and palaces of their kings become signs of grandeur and glory to them. This is exactly what has happened with the latter day Muslims. Almost all the activities of Muslims in present times bear testimony to this fact. The speeches of their leaders, the books of their writers, the poetry of their poets, seem to centre on their glorious history. Their writers and speakers provide them food for thought about historical glory rather than divine glory. This is the reason why in modern times a large number of books have been written by the Muslims bent on the celebration of history, while perhaps not a single book has been produced on the majesty of God Almighty.

Given this state of affairs, when a reformer arises to call Muslims to the religion of the Quran and Sunnah, his voice naturally appears strange to his hearers. For they feel that this person is calling them to a position of modesty, whereas their religion (that is, history) aims at placing them in a position of strength. In such an atmosphere, the words of the reformer will impinge as worthless, alien and unacceptable.

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